I have asked many questions about "would" both in ELL and ELU. But I still have a question about the use of "would". I have recently asked a question which @Jay also answered. He used "wouldn't" in the following sentences: 1. Here, you wouldn't say, "May I ask you what is your name?" Though we break this rule for questions sometimes 2. Well, someone might say that in informal speech, but you wouldn't write it or use it in formal speech. 3. "May I ask you what's your name?" is awkward; a fluent speaker wouldn't say that.

I had asked Use and meaning of "wouldn't" in "you wouldn't" and "a speaker wouldn't" question in ELL and I have received answers for it. But there is one thing that I'm still confused about.

Do the meanings of the sentences above change if we use 'won't' instead of using 'wouldn't' ? can we use 'won't' in the place of 'wouldn't' without changing the meanings of the sentences above?

  • 3
    Possible duplicate of won't instead of using' wouldn't' is possible? Aug 21, 2016 at 18:55
  • The other question is already being closed as a duplicate of this one - so I'm going to vote to leave this open.
    – ColleenV
    Aug 21, 2016 at 19:35
  • @ColleenV I'm very confused now! Both have 4 close votes. Aug 21, 2016 at 20:30
  • 1
    @P.E.Dant I flagged it for a moderator to untangle. We wouldn't want to accidentally tear a hole in the SE continuum :)
    – ColleenV
    Aug 21, 2016 at 20:31
  • @P.E Dent,could you please tell me why you have used 'wouldn't' here in your comment instead of don't?
    – yubraj
    Sep 22, 2016 at 6:22

1 Answer 1


Wouldn't and won't are not interchangeable in your three sentences. The meanings of the sentences are different depending upon which form of the verb is used.

If wouldn't is replaced by won't in the first sentence, we have:

  1. Here, you won't say, "May I ask you what is your name?"

Won't (a contraction of will not, the present tense of the verb will with the negative adverb) describes the future from the viewpoint of that future; it describes the future as "its own present." Wouldn't (a contraction of would not, the past tense of the verb will with the negative adverb) describes the future as if viewed from a time further ahead of the present than that future; it describes the future as "its own past."

It is always important to remember that even when the verb will is used as a modal or auxiliary verb, it is not merely a neutral word which places the action in the future. Every use of the verb will also partakes of its original meaning of wish for or want. Thus, wouldn't in your first sentence gives it the meaning:

Looking back at your words as if you had already spoken them, you wish you had not said "May I ask you what is your name?"

This expresses a strong preference for not using those words.

Replacing wouldn't with won't gives the sentence this meaning:

Looking at your words as if you are in the future and speaking them, you do not say "May I ask you what is your name?"

This merely states that, in the future, you do not use those words, with no sense of preference.

The meaning of will as to desire, wish is strong when the past tense would is used, and especially when in the negative as in your sentences. The construction You wouldn't +[bare infinitive] or You wouldn't want +[infinitive] is often used in English to suggest, emphatically, a negative desire or preference:

You wouldn't eat dirt!
You wouldn't want to get a speeding ticket!
‘But you wouldn’t want to read a whole book of text speak,’ I said. (Source)

  • +1! Good stuff! Hope this help OP with his or her problems on modality once and for all. :)
    – Kinzle B
    Aug 22, 2016 at 7:45
  • @PE Dent,what do you think of the answer given by SLC in ell.stackexchange.com/questions/101025/… ?
    – yubraj
    Aug 22, 2016 at 14:37
  • @yubrajsharma I don't think it's completely accurate. His analysis does not explain why we use the past tense of will in this way. He doesn't address the difference in time perspective at all. He focusses on the second person plural pronoun (which he calls "the general you" for some reason) and to be frank, his reasoning is wrong. In the sentence You wouldn't say "May I ask you what is your name", the speaker is not addressing "general" anything. He addresses a specific subject: you! In sum, without casting aspersions on SLC, I don't think it's a useful answer. Aug 22, 2016 at 19:47
  • @yubrajsharma For some reason, will/would is particularly puzzling to some speakers of S. Asian languages and Arabic, just as the perfect is. This may have something to do with the fact that English is only weakly inflected and makes use of modal verbs (can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will and would) to add inflection. The will-would tag at ELU might provide you with some insights. Click here. Aug 22, 2016 at 19:57
  • @P.E Dent, is the last part of your answer is related to hypothetical or conditional usage of would? or just a way of expressing negative desire about something just like:I don't want/like/go etc?
    – yubraj
    Sep 22, 2016 at 7:43

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